Stealing Beauty: the History of Art Forgery, and the Rise in Art Thefts During the Pandemic

Art theft has worsened dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — but why?


Igor Miske / Unsplash

Perhaps up to 50 percent of all artwork currently on the market is forged or misattributed, according to the Fine Art Expert Institute.

An art auctioneer can make the biggest mistake of her career in a matter of minutes and never realize it by auctioning off a piece of forged artwork. Accidentally buying fake art is simultaneously the most blatant and subtle form of art theft that exists. Yet, art forgery has become much more common in this era, with fewer methods of authentication readily available to quell the growth. 

To begin to understand forgeries in art, the term forgery must first be defined within an appropriate context. Intentional art forgery is the deliberate concealment of something illegitimate as something authentic, typically done in order to sell the forgery for the price of what the authentic item would be. While the distinction between intentional forgery and general forgery may seem unnecessary, it is an important one to make when terms such as “legitimate reproductions” and “genuine fakes” are used alongside each other. 

The most prevalent example of someone who makes genuine fakes is John Myatt, a British artist turned forger. His art career started when he posted an advertisement in a magazine called Private Eye advertising ‘genuine fakes,’ or original works made in the style of famous artists. He remained honest about the origin of his paintings, but that  ended when a regular customer of his managed to sell some of his paintings as genuine works of the artist Albert Gleizes, which Myatt’s style had imitated in the painting.

Elmyr de Hory is considered to be the most famous and successful art forger of all time, but he didn’t originally begin his career with that job. His start was like that of many — a struggling original artist in the market — but he soon discovered his affinity for replicating Modernist art styles. In fact, he was so popular and sought after, that  paintings claimed to have been made by the forger himself, soon appeared after his death. Similar careers are commonplace in the art world, with many struggling artists also following Elmyr de Hory’s path in the hopes of making a living. 

Similar to Elmyr de Hory, Pei-Shen Qian, the center of the largest art fraud in American history, began as a struggling artist in Times Square. Quan falsely aged his paintings using tea bags, giving them exposure to the elements, and even using dirt from a vacuum cleaner. While simple sounding, along with the final forging of a well-known artist’s signature, Qian was able to fool many unsuspecting buyers.

Art forgeries are terribly commonplace in the market, yet rarely are they as often spoken of as art heists. The term ‘art heist,’ elicits thoughts of the movie Stolen or a late-night museum break-in. One imagines a dramatic, unsolved mystery. However, these movies don’t tend to present the full picture. Some art heists are not as cut and dry as they may appear to be.

For example, one painting, Frans Hals’ Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, had been stolen and returned for the third time in 32 years from The Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in the Netherlands. The Van Gogh painting, Lentetuin, or Spring Garden, was stolen from a museum the artist’s birthday. In another art heist, a ceramic made by Picasso himself, and gifted to American novelist Ernest Hemingway, disappeared during the Cuban Revolution. It resurfaced when NFL player Steve Kough took it as payment from Pablo Escobar. A podcast, called Hemingway’s Picasso, about this specific heist, is available for listening here.

Well-known art heists like these went about as one would expect; a work of art was stolen, seizing headlines as investigators searched for the culprit. It turns out that only five to ten percent of stolen artworks are ever returned to their original owners. Luckily, however, some art heists are solved. Germany’s largest art theft occurred in 1979, where five paintings, including Alter Mann were taken. But the Friedenstein Castle theft, as it has now been coined, has one of the happier endings, with all five paintings eventually being found and returned some forty years later. 

Although some of the more famous art thefts like these occurred decades ago, art heists are by no means a thing of the past. In September 2021, a short-lived art heist was thwarted at the University of Kansas, where two students were charged with the theft of a Native American art exhibit; fortunately, the exhibit was later safely returned. And on October 19th, 2021 in Oakland, California, a thief smashed a window into artist Raymond L. Haywood’s gallery, making off with a print worth over $500.

Unfortunately, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has made art theft a lot more frequent. Yet, globally, crimes occurring in museums have decreased since last year. If these numbers aren’t lining up, it’s because there’s more to art thefts than just museum break-ins. Excavations, archaeological, and paleontological sites are seeing massive increases in exploitations. They’re less protected now — most likely due to underfunding as a result of the pandemic — and thus, easier to exploit and to steal from. “As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property,” said Corrado Catesi, coordinator of the Works of Art unit at INTERPOL. 

Since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, there has been close to a 200% increase in illicit excavations in the Americas alone, and close to a 4000% percent increase in Asia and the South Pacific. These archaeological and paleontological sites have always been less protected than objects stored in museums, but they are even more endangered now. 

Accidentally buying fake art is simultaneously the most blatant and subtle form of art theft that exists. Yet, art forgery has become much more common in this era, with less authentication methods readily available to quell the growth.